Rethinking those well-intended comments

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By Kathy Berken

We’ve all done it. Said things we were sure would help, when they did just the opposite.

About 40 years ago on a cold day in late October, we had a major house fire when a gas leak triggered an explosion as the water heater in the basement started up. I got our two children outside and called 911.

Sitting on a bale of hay in our detached garage, as the fire department finally arrived, I experienced some surreal moments. Our neighbor Judy walked up and said, “I’ll take the kids to my house.” She came back with a jacket in her hands and said, “I thought you might need this.” No other words were necessary. The fire chief bent down, grabbed my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Is there anybody else in the house?” I said, “No,” and he turned around and got back to work directing his crew to get that fire under control.

Then another neighbor walked up and sat down next to me. She started to tell me about a house fire they had once. I was in such a state of shock, that’s all I remember, but her comments definitely did not ease any of my pain. I’m sure she thought she was helping by making a common connection, but it just shifted the energy to her and at that moment, it’s not what I needed.

When another neighbor walked into the garage and said, “I’m so sorry,” I felt her care.

When you have been in a place where you just need compassion, the last thing you need is for someone to draw the attention to themselves, no matter how well-intentioned.

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I came across an online article from 2020 titled “Well-Meant Advice That’s Just Wrong,” by Emma Cameron (https://emmacameron.com/living/well-meant-advice-thats-wrong/). She lists 20 common remarks that I am guessing all of us have heard or perhaps said ourselves. Each one seems well intended, with an attempt to reduce the pain of the person on the receiving end. For example, when you say, “Everything happens for a reason,” aren’t you trying to give meaning to a difficult or painful event, thereby justifying its existence? Further, it might even answer the question we’ve all had about why a good and perfect God allows bad things to happen.

Truth is, maybe everything does happen for a reason. That discussion can happen in an academic setting, or maybe years down the road, but it never aids a person who is suffering right now. Jesus did not tell the blind man at Bethsaida that there was a reason he couldn’t see. He saw him, felt compassion, spit into the dirt, put the mud into his eyes, and healed him. It’s more loving to simply acknowledge the person’s plight, recognize their emotions, and offer a tissue or glass of water. “This must really hurt,” is a sign of compassion.

Another well-intended comment is, “It gets better.” It might get better, but that is irrelevant, and not productive, if you are in pain. All that does is deny the person’s emotions. Do you think it would have helped Mary as she stood under the cross watching her son die if John would have said, “It gets better”? Yes, it does get better in one sense, but Mary’s son is still dying. Simply being present to the other person can be the most powerful thing you have never said.

If you tell a friend a story that has caused you great pain and they say, “You can’t change the past. Accept it and move on,” they are correct. However, that comment may make you feel that you weren’t heard at all and that your feelings don’t matter. What we need most is to be heard, validated, and sometimes just held in silence.

I think Matthew 7:12 says it best: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.”

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)


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